Category Archives: Movie Review

MOVIE REVIEW: “The Other Side of the Wind” (2018)

I just watched “The Other Side of the Wind,” a posthumous film by Orson Welles.

Shot between 1971 and 1975, the production was a typically sisyphean ordeal of a subset so specific to Mr. Welles that I’ve taken to calling it “Orsonian.” The film’s  troubles, and those have been detailed ad nauseam elsewhere, so I’m not going to bore you with them.  Suffice to say that he was placed under an actual honest-to-God voodoo curse in 1942, and since his movie finally came out in 2018, I think we can conclude that it’s still in effect.

So how do you review a “new” Orson Welles movie? It’s always a little difficult since Welles himself disliked symbolism and metaphor in movies. The story is the thing and the deeper meanings, if any, are subject to your own interpretation or, more likely, are only in your own head to begin with.

The Plot (I warn you there be spoilers, but in a movie of this sort I’m not sure they’re really of any significance. It’s not really a plot-driven film):

John Houston plays a washed up movie director who was once the golden boy of Hollywood, but has fallen from glory since the golden age. He is pretty obviously based on Orson Welles himself.  Peter Bogdanovich plays a very successful young director and self-described “Apostle” of John Houston’s character. He is pretty obviously based on Peter Bogdanovich, who was the golden boy of the early ’70s, and the last of the pre-Spielbergian wunderkind. And also one of Orson Welles’ real-life best friends. In fact, Orson was broke and living in Peter’s house for much of the production, and some of the scenes were shot there as well.

I’m just going to call them by their actor names.

It’s Houston’s 70th birthday, and he’s decided to celebrate by screening a film he’s been working on at his home as part of the party. He’s invited film crews, cineastes, critics, directors, producers, Dennis Hopper, Rich Little, and others. In fact, the party scenes are a who’s who of behind-the-camera power of the “New Hollywood” era (About 1965-75), some of them playing themselves, some playing fictional characters. Orson himself even turns up briefly as a disembodied voice asking John Houston a question.

The film, then, is an ersatz documentary about a fictional director’s birthday party. This is actually visually rather fascinating, owing to its quick cutting, and random juxtaposition between film type. B&W, color, 8mm, 16mm, different grains, etc. We’re to believe the whole thing was cut together from the footage of a dozen or more cameras wandering about the house at the time.

Yeah, that’s right, kids: Orson Welles invented the Found Footage style. Who knew?

This is contrasted with what we see of Houston’s movie, “The Other Side of the Wind,” which is in beautiful color, very nicely composed shots, neato-keeno cinematography, and no plot whatsoever.

(In essence an androgynous man follows Orson’s naked real-life girlfriend around. Neither of them ever say a word. They have sex. It means….nothing. I think maybe it’s supposed to mean nothing. Of course this film-within-a-film is incomplete, and we’re not getting the whole story, but it seems to be a parody of a particular style of European art film at the time, and my sense is that Orson found it pretty but vapid)

As it turns out, the production is broke. The male lead – Johnny Dale (Played by Bob Random) apparently freaked out during a sex scene, ran off the set, and hasn’t been seen since. They’re out of money, out of time, and out of a leading man. The party is a desperate attempt to hit Bogdanovich up for money to complete it, but that doesn’t really pan out.

The screening is a bomb, Houston loses everything, and floors his Porsche into a drive-in theater screen, killing himself.

The End.

So what does it all mean? Well, as with all Welles films, it means what it says, but the thing is I’m just a little less clear on what this says than in his other films. I’m assuming it’s a slice of life of Orson’s own eternal filmmaking torment, and the standard Hollywood bullcrap, but while the failure of the movie does provide a framework for the film, I’m not entirely sure it’s what it’s about.

The most interesting aspect for me was the Johnny Dale character. The androgynous lead of the film-within-a-film, we’re told repeatedly that he was attempting to kill himself by drowning when Houston saw him from his yacht. He saved his life and forced him into acting, against his will. Later on Houston’s own posse do some looking into his past, and discover that Johnny is really named “Oscar,” is super-gay, and that his drowning wasn’t a suicide, it was an audition. Houston is furious and amused that he fell for it.

Johnny/Oscar freaked out during an oral sex scene with Oja Kodar, the perpetually naked lead of the film within a film and ran off.

There’s a curiously gay element running through this picture as well. It’s implied that Houston’s character is a latent homosexual. He has a career-long penchant for discovering handsome leading men, building them into stars, then stealing their women, then discarding both. Susan Strassberg, playing a thinly-disguised Pauline Kael – says this is as close as Houston can get to having sex with his leading men, which she thinks is what he really wants to do. He belts her, which pretty much means she’s probably right.

So is Houston’s character an expy for Orson himself? Yes and no. It has been well documented that Orson was super-de-duper-de straight, so that aspect isn’t him. Also, Orson never had an eye for jailbait, whereas Houston is nailing a 15-year-old girl in the film. I don’t know where that came from (Bogdanovitch says it was a late addition to the script, and that it was a slam at his relationship with the then-19 Cybill Sheppard, which he took offense at, and which made the later stages of production rather chilly)

On the other hand, the fall from early glory, the endless struggle to find financing, projects falling apart for stupid reasons near completion, and the continual hand-to-mouth existence while his acolytes copy him and find fame and fortune – that is all totally Orson. Though he insisted this wasn’t an autobiographical film, it pretty definitely is.

The acting is all over the place. Bob Random and Oja Kodar (Who gets second billing) don’t have any lines in the movie. Houston’s jailbait girlfriend is just a terrible actress (Orson found her waitressing a diner, and insisted she be in the picture.  She was not up to the task.) Bogdanovich’s role was originally held by someone else, then re-cast halfway through production. He’s not bad, as he’s basically playing himself, but he’s not an actor. Given the feel of the bulk of the film, this doesn’t really hurt it at all, though. A surprising amount of dialog is improved, but the more scripted stuff stands out as a result.

I’m never sure about Oja. Some people say she was Orson’s muse and the love of his life. Others say she was his Yoko, or perhaps his Zelda, and the love of his life. So did she keep him going or destroy him? Probably neither, but I’m undecided.  Something that I’ve never heard commented on before I watched it last night: Oja plays her entire role in “Redface.” Or, technically I suppose, given that she’s naked in 75% of her scenes, “Redeverything.” She’s a Croatian actress playing an American Indian for no explained reason (I’m just going to assume that in the film-within-a-film she represents America or the Frontier or perhaps poor treatment of American Indians. I dunno, man, it was the early ’70s). She’s never given a proper name in the party scenes, but people sarcastically call her “Pocahontas” and “Miniehaha” and stuff like that. In 1973 this would have been nothing at all. Nowadays, with all the Whitewashing kerfluffle, I’m interested to see if there’s any backlash, or if Orson gets to play his “Dead-Genius-Beyond-Criticism” card.

The gay subtext – which is relatively subdued – would probably have been rather scandalous in the day. Again, I’m interested to see how that plays out now, with our modern attitudes on homosexuality.  Honestly, this whole film would have been pretty scandalous back then, and I feel like that’s deliberate.

Good lord, is there a lot of nudity in this film! The first shot is a half dozen naked women in a steam bath. Then there’s a hippie night club with nude films projected on the walls, then the “Bathroom Orgy” sequence, where there’s 2 or 3 people in a stall, Oja changing her clothes while an orally fixated lesbian teen looks on, Oja having sex with Bob Random in the car (Which is rumored to have been real, not simulated, but I dunno…), then endless naked wandering through backlots, and the scene on a mattress where she starts to go down on the guy, and he freaks out and runs away. Oh, and her naked with scizors destroying a giant phallic symbol. As I said, it’s a parody of Euro-Art Films)

(I’m not saying this for titillation purposes, but the sex scene in the car is the best-shot sequence in the film. Ignoring the nudity, the car shaking, the rain on the windows, other cars coming past, the rythyms of the camera and the cuts and the lighting are just stunningly put together. It’s mesmerizing and beautiful, and not for the sex. It’s an example that even when he’s just making fun of something, Welles could still do it better than the thing he was making fun of. It’s a pity the scene is too dirty to show your friends, or my Orson-Welles-loving aunt)

My biggest beef, I guess, is the absence of the suicide scene at the end. In the script and storyboards, as I said, Houston slams into the projection screen, killing himself and his car explodes. That shot was never filmed (Because they would have had to destroy the car and the screen, so it would have been filmed last).  As a result, the movie just ends with Houston driving off. There’s no real climax as such.

Given the ease of making that scene (They even have Houston’s voice-over!) it would have been easy to shoot it and insert it. Given the amount of money Netflix invested in FINALLY getting this thing made, it would have been a pittance. And Bogdanovich’s opening voiceover has been changed some to reflect the modern day, so clearly slight changes to the film were thought to be acceptable.

Go figure.

 

So is it a good movie or not? Of course. It’s an Orson Welles movie.

Do I like it? That’s another matter. I’m honestly not sure.

 

I ruin movies by making them better…in your mind!

I tend to ruin movies by making them better.

See, I’m one of those annoying people who, for entirely selfish reasons, tries to get his friends to watch movies I’ve already seen. The reasons? Mostly so I can have someone to talk about it with, and of course, validation. (“Yes, Randy, that was a good film that I would not have seen were it not due to your incessant nagging. You have good taste in film, and hence are a good person, and you can stop hating yourself now.”) I have a lot of issues on that front.

Anyway, the problem is that I’m a pretty shallow man and hence have pretty narrow tastes. Mostly I just watch Science Fiction films. Current ones, old ones, classics, sclock-fests, I don’t really care. I also like anything by the Coen brothers, up to and including that bootleg of a very drunk Ethan puking his guts out in a toilet, while his sibling is laughing so hard that he can barely keep the shot in frame. (“[Rowlf] For God’s sake, Joel, why aren’t you helping me? [Rowlf]) I also claim to like everything by Terry Gilliam, but I’m lying about that. I really only like three of his films. Some war movies are cool. I mostly pretend they’re happening in space, anyway. Theoretically I like any western that’s more than two hours long, but watching a marathon of Terrence Hill films a couple years ago has made me question that. Oh, right, and I used to like some foreign art films up until I turned 40 and suddenly started finding them all disturbing.

So, really, not a lot of depth there, if I’m honest. Which I just was.

Bottom line: Nobody is interested in the movies I’m interested in, nor have they ever been, nor should they be. Yes, everyone will go to see Star Wars IX: The Legend of Curly’s Gold, but everyone was going to see that anyway, right? I’m grateful to have something to talk to them about, but it’s completely lacking in the ‘validation’ thing I mentioned above. It’s not like I talked them into seeing Colosus: the Forbin Project, or The Andromeda Strain (Both of which are super-rad and bitchin’ by the way). Do you know how hard I had to work to get anyone to watch Blade Runner in the decade between its release and the time it spontaneously became popular? And now everyone thinks it’s the 2nd best SF film of all time, and half the people reading this were born after 1992, so you’ve never known a world in which it was just me and Ridley Scott saying, “No, honestly, it doesn’t suck! And it’s pretty!” And Ridley, honestly, didn’t seem that interested after “Legend” also bombed. (That one totally deserved it. It sucks)

Since nobody likes what I like, I have to kind of oversell it in order to pique their interest. I’m sort of bad at this, in that I tend to be honest. “Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat is, unquestionably, the most original and important thing to happen to the vampire mythos in 50 years. However all that important stuff is in the last five minutes, and you also have to suffer through a pre-acting-lessons Bruce Campbell, which, as you know is painful, but here’s a list of concepts that, while poorly executed through the rest of the movie, are still sort of interested. And again: the last five minutes are the absolute best thing in the entire history of best things themselves!”

Needless to say, my batting average is pretty low.

Which brings me to the way I ruin movies for everyone.

See, I grew up in a semi-abandoned citrus grove that only had three other widely-spaced houses, and the occasional biker gang. Oh, and rattlesnakes. Lots and lots of rattlesnakes. Needless to say I didn’t have a lot of friends to play with. My dad was a dad, and hence mostly interested in sports, and relaxing after a hard week at work. Movies were low on his priority list. My mom…wow. My mom worked as a ticket girl in the box office of a movie theater in the ‘50s, but never bothered to go in and watch any of the movies. In 1977 the last film she’d seen in a theater was “The Sound of Music.” That movie was two years older than I am, and I’m half-convinced that she only went to see it because she used to work for the Von Trapp family. (It’s true! She did!) There was absolutely no chance on selling her on seeing anything, ever.

I had a shot with my dad, though. The problem there was that his attention span for things he wasn’t already interested in – like football – was fairly short. It was even shorter when football was actually on TV while I was making my pitch. This meant I had a very narrow window of opportunity to make my sale. I’d wait for the extended commercial break between quarters, and I only had 15 minutes. Less if he needed to use the can.

Basically I’d stand directly in front of him, and run through the whole plot of the movie at lightning pace. I’d jump around to give an impression of any cool action scenes. I’d deliver dialog in different voices so there wouldn’t be any confusion as to who was speaking – because, remember, I didn’t have time, and he was only half-paying attention. I would quote any cool dialog I could remember, and other dialog I couldn’t quite remember verbatim I’d punch up on the fly. Sometimes I’d hum or whistle theme music. I would describe in glorious detail any cool visual scenes, and then, hopefully, I’d get to the conclusion before “…and we’re back. It’s the fourth quarter, and the Bucs are down 21 points against the Dolphins. For the third time in three seasons.”

I never had much luck with my dad, but I got really good at my weird little presentations. Being constitutionally incapable of selfconsciousness, I started doing them at school. I had a better memory in those days, so I could just launch into one whenever the opportunity arose. These were always extemperaneous, always tailered to whatever the person I was talking to would find cool. Spoilers? Pfeh. Here’s the truth: most people won’t watch movies if they don’t already know how they’re going to end. Audiences are lazy. Particularly with old films, and remember, there wasn’t much Science Fiction in theaters in those days, so much of the time I was just trying to get people to watch, “It: The Terror from Beyond Space,” or “Fantastic Voyage,” or acting out why people shouldn’t watch, “Creation of the Humanoids.” Yeah, that’s right, I could use my skills to plug or kill a movie. I’m just that good.

It got so people would ask me to explain a movie just becaue they wanted to watch my floorshow. My pitch for “Outland” was referred to by a teacher as, “A one man show stage version of High Noon.” Which is pretty apt, really. I did this in college, I did this after college, heck, I still do it now. It’s become reflex. As society’s attention span dropped ever-lower, I got more effective.

Which brings us to the part where I ruin movies:

At some point, people started saying stuff like, “Yeah, ‘Brazil’ was pretty good and all, but I liked your report on it better than watching the movie itself.” Or, “Honestly I think the death scene in ‘The 9th Configuration’ was better the way you did it, then in the film.” or “Your rendition of ‘Forbidden Planet’ didn’t really prepare me for how corny and stiff the dialog in the movie was.”

Eventually, “I liked the Randy version better,” became a common complaint.

Why?

“Well, you get so excited about them, and you’re so energetic, and you emphasize stuff they don’t and downplay stuff they emphasize, and some of your mis-remembered dialog is cooler than theirs, and you leave out the scenes that don’t work. I end up with a picture of the movie in my head, I go in expecting that and I get…just a movie. Not The Randy Version of the movie, which is more fun.”

“And shorter?”

“Oh, yeah, way the hell shorter. I really don’t have the attention span for a three-hour movie.”

MOVIE REVIEW: “Battle in Outer Space” (1959)

I haven’t done one of these in a long while, but when I came across a Japanese space movie I’d never seen before, I just knew I had to cover it.

PLAY BY PLAY

In the not-too-distant future – I dunno, the 1970s, I guess, or maybe the late ‘60s – Japan has a vigorous space program that has its own large space station that looks a lot like a roulette wheel, complete with the little spinny bit at the tip. The station – which is armed for no good reason – is attacked by flying saucers, and destroyed.

Roll opening titles!

UFOs cause several acts of wonton destruction (Which is a great Chinese punk cover band that used to play in…oh, wait, I already used that gag in another review) involving wrecking a train, the Panama Canal, and Venice. Japan got off light. You knew the train was going to get destroyed, though, since it was obviously a miniature rather than stock footage. That’s how you can always tell when something is about to explode in these films: if they use miniatures for something they could have simply gone outdoors and shot for real, it’s gonna’ die.

Anyway, a UN conference is called at the Japanese Space Center to discuss the loss of the space station, the miniature train, and the two poorly painted pictures that are alleged to be photographs of Panama and Italy. They conclude that the earth is under attack by aliens from the planet Natal. How they know this isn’t made clear, and in fact there’s really no way they could.

Meanwhile, the Iranian delegate to the UN Science Thingie wanders off by himself (Always stay with the group! Always!) and gets Zombified by the aliens. He’s now their slave. Why’d they pick an Iranian? I’m assuming either it was the whole “Hostages” thing, which wouldn’t happen for another 19 years, or it might be that he wore a turban, which hid the surgery scars. So anyway, he runs amok breaking stuff ineffectually until he’s outed by a random gaggle of UN delegates who chase him around (If you’ve got sound editing equipment, remove the soundtrack during these scenes, and replace them with “Help” by the Beatles and some girly screams. It’s hilarious!) so he escapes smirkingly, and is disintegrated by his alien overlords.

Scooping up some of the red dust that remains, and putting it under the microscope, they conclude that there was a tiny machine or something in his head that made him act all goofy. The UN re-convenes, and declares that the aliens from the planet they’ve never heard of and shouldn’t know the name of, have set up a base on the moon and are planning to invade, which they also shouldn’t really know. Ok, the invasion is a no-brainer, but the moon thing? What, was it written on the mind control device in really tiny print or something?

In less time than it takes to say ‘jumpcut’ the nations of the world are working together building two large spacecraft (Who’s size is really inconsistent) to go the moon to do recon or possibly to kick butt (Also rather inconsistent). Rather than simply go, however, they decide to pad out the film a bit with the most unromantic romantic subplot of all time:

Protagonist and Chick (The characters are all ciphers and fairly interchangeable ones at that, so let’s not even keep the pretense that they have names) go out for a skrog in the park. They lay down. Chick looks up at the moon and says, “You know, when I look at the moon, I keep imagining there’s a prince up there who’ll come down and swoop me off my feet.” I don’t know where you come from, but around here (Florida), if a girl starts mooning about some guy other than you to take her away, you’re pretty much not gonna get any.

Meanwhile, Protagonist says “I think as we move further into the future, our sense of beauty will fade.” What the frack? What are you, a French existential nihilist? Dude, seriously, that kinda’ crap wouldn’t even get you laid in Paris in the ‘50s. Yikes!

I should mention that the girl is reeeeeeealy pretty. Her name was Koyoko Anzai. I can’t find any pictures of her, but believe you me, she’s way prettier than the chicks you generally see in movies of this caliber and period. While watching this, I remembered a scene in the movie “The Mysterians” that was almost identical, and wondered if clueless people not making out was just the zeitgeist of the time. In looking it up, I found that this movie is actually a sequel to The Mysterians, so it was probably an in-joke. Turns out this was a trilogy: The Mysterians (Which I’ve seen a zillion times, but not in 30 years), this movie, and a third one that I’ve never heard of.

So anyway, Protagonist and Koyoko see a flying saucer and beat it back to the base. Meanwhile, their fellow-astronaut friend – let’s call him “Imomura”* – decides to drive into town before the mission to “Kiss the girls.” He’s abducted by the aliens, who plant yet another Zombification device in his head.

The next morning, the two ships – cleverly named “One” and “Two” – are launched. As they fly to the moon, they have no gravity. One third-class yokel – exactly one, and nobody else, despite there being like thirty people on the mission – gets out of his seat, floats up, and bangs his head on the ceiling. The skipper reminds him that they’re weightless, you need to be careful.

“Oh, that’s right, I remember you saying that.”

You’d think this stuff was covered in Astronaut training, but nope, it’s just “Everyone can be an Astronaut day” down at the Japanese Space Center. First fifty people get to go on a suicide mission to the moon. The first hundred get snow cones!

So they pull the guy down. Let’s let that sink in a moment.
He’s floating ‘cuz he’s weightless, they’re weightless too, but they pull him down, when in fact they should go Peter Panning their way up there, too. Evidently, however, you don’t float in zero G as long as you walk carefully.

Seriously: They never explain this. I’d have expected some exposition about “Magnetic Boots” or what have you , but no, just take light steps. Then the officers head into the control room.

Wait – shouldn’t they have been in the control room for liftoff? Wasn’t that where they’ve been all this time?

Evidently not, no.

So they go into the large, submarine-like control room. Evidently the ship was launched on autopilot. Well, really, all rockets are, so I guess they didn’t need to be up there, but it still seems like wasted floor space to me. Ah well.
They pass the floating ruins of the space station, and say a prayer for the dead. This is a really nice scene. Then, en rout to the moon, they get attacked by flying saucers shooting “Space Torpedoes.” (Wouldn’t that mean ‘missiles?’ No matter, they look like rocks anyway.)

Using the super-zap heatray guns that I forgot to mention earlier, but which were invented during a jumpcut in an earlier scene in the film, they manage to fight their way through this and take out a few saucers. Meanwhile, acting under alien influence, Imomura attempts to sabotage and destroy one of their own ships, and disables it’s super-ray gun. He’s caught and ineffectually tied up.

While landing on the moon, the spooky alien baritone warns them to go home, or die. They actually briefly discuss going home.

They then lower some ridiculously over-designed moon rovers to the surface. Seriously: they’ve got tractor treads, and then above these, never touching the ground, they’ve got big car wheels sticking out to the sides. And the things can fly. And they can bend in the middle, but they never do. Impressively enough, they actually built a full-size mockup of the front of one of these! No sooner are they there, then Yokel Third Class (Same guy) manages to bound over the lander by accident. He’s again chided for not being careful.

So they tool around a bit, in boring fashion, and eventually find a cave. Going through the cave, they find the alien base, which is kinda’ boring. They discuss going in to attack it, but decide to get the big portable heat ray machine gun. They send Koyoko back to get the gun, and she’s ambushed by a whole bunch of the aliens in an effectively creepy scene. She’s then rescued by her “Eventually our sense of beauty will fade” boyfriend who’s so forgettable that I actually honestly did forget he was in the movie. And he’s the protagonist!

Why is this scene effective? It’s shot and thought out well. It’s a cave already, so it’s dark and spooky. The aliens are wearing space suits, which saves money on monster costume costs, and allows our imaginations to fill in the blanks. They’re humanoid, but short, child sized, and there’s a lot of them capering about, with helmets that aren’t designed for human heads, making creepy gibbering noises. Protagonist kills them, the they both get back to the cave opening overlooking the alien base.

Meanwhile, Imomura frees himself and blows up one of the moon rockets, then makes his way to the second one.
Humans and aliens shoot at each other a bit, until the alien base blows up, but it disgorges several saucers before it does. On ship two, Imomura loses the voice in his head. In a neat, though brief scene, his face goes from heartless cold to confusion as the signal ceases, and he tries to figure out his last instruction. Then awareness of what he was doing. It’s well played. He sets things right.

The expedition returns to the landing site to find one ship blown up. They assume the saucers did it, but Imomura confesses, begs forgiveness, and stays behind to hold off the saucers with his ray gun while the ship blasts off.
And there you’d think the movie end, but no, there’s an entirely superfluous fourth act.

Back on earth, they decide there’s really nothing to stop the aliens from attacking again, so they decide to build a massive fleet of the “One man scout rockets” they’ve been using, and convert them to fighters. We see several scenes of construction, the aliens attack, and the fighters are launched. These are, no question about it, X-15s with a different paint job.  Seriously, they’re just toy model kits.

Then there’s the titular ‘battle in outer space’ which involves none of our characters. Well, they’re in it, but they’re largely interchangeable anyway, and they’re all on the ground gawking at monitors while the fighting goes on. For a while I thought Protagonist was one of the fighter pilots, but, no, I was wrong. He wasn’t. He was just a gawker, too.

So this is pretty dull. Imagine the last 15 minutes of Star Wars if Luke and Han stayed on Yavin, and the whole fight was left up to Porkins and Biggs. Yeah.

The aliens blow up a very substandard model of NYC, and they take out a mediocre model of the Golden Gate bridge.  The alien mothership attacks Tokyo. Big ray guns on the ground destroy it. Everyone congratulates each other.

Then an American who hasn’t been in the movie at all up to the battle stands up, and a woman and kid come in, and they make a point of introducing his family, and then he leaves. What the heck was that all about?

The end.
OBSERVATIONS

They never specifically say it, but it appears there are only three manned space programs in the world in this movie: The American one, the Soviet one, and the Japanese one. It’s sort of taken for granted that the Japanese had the only space station.

Since it’s illegal to use the UN logo for profit, or without written permission, the producers of this film made a near-exact duplicate, only the earth is turned 90 degrees to the right. Clever! And they never actually say “United Nations” in the movie.

There’s no getting around it: this is a lavish production. George Pal would have killed to have this kind of money. Take, for instance, the space station in the opening scene: it’s shaped like a wheel, and the interior sets stretch off into the distance and curve up, just like “Space Station V” from 2001. That movie was filmed 9 years later. They built half of the moon rover. The interior sets of the space ships were not particularly awe-inspiring, but they were competent and pretty big. They had at least a dozen full space suits for the adults, and at least another dozen for the aliens, and at least 24 helmets, they had a fighter cockpit set, they had a pretty large cast, some of whom, I gather, were minor names at the time. This was a sequel to “The Mysterians,” and it clearly had a lot more money behind it than the first film did.

Wanna’ know how to tell if one of these old productions had any money? Space suits. They’re expensive, especially the helmets. If you’ve got a bunch of ‘em, this is a pricey proposition.

The special effects are your typical LB Abbot/Howard Lydecker thing: models on wires. That said, the quality of the shots is really good, and a couple of the scenes – the wreckage of the space station, or the rockets tumbling towards the moon in slow motion – are really pretty. And everything looks good in lurid Technicolor Oh, sorry, “Tohoscope.” When The model building in this movie is surprisingly sub-par, however.

One neat touch: you know how in these old SF films, fire is belching out of the back of the rocket, and the flames kind of bend in some other direction than straight down? And it looks fake? It’s because heat rises, and the flame will find ‘up’ regardless of the position of the model. In this film, to get around it, they built all the launch pad sets upside down, put the camera upside down, lit the fuse, and then dropped the rocket into a net out of shot. The flames don’t look all bendy, and best of all the clouds of smoke gradually appear to rise. They used the same trick for when the aliens are destroying buildings in Tokyo with their anti-gravity guns: the models and camera were upside down. When the explosions start, all the debris falls up, or appears to.

Man, the science in this film is hokey, even by the standards of the time! We’re told that gravity and temperature are related. The alien anti-gravity weapon works by freezing things so cold that they become lighter, and are thrown into the air by the earth’s own centrifugal force. Uhm…..whaaaat?

And…uhm…I guess that’s about it. Now I remember why I haven’t done one of these in a year or so: they take forever to write. I’m tired.

*- That’s actually the character’s real name, I just wanted to see if you’d look down here.

MOVIE REVIEW: “Pokemon: I Choose You” (2017)

This is a gorgeous movie. I really wish I’d been able to see it on the big screen.

Much to my surprise, that actually was an option. They hadn’t released a Pokemon movie theatrically in the US sine 2001, which was, like sixteen movies ago. Turns out that since this is the twentieth anniversary film in the franchise (And the twentieth film total – yikes!), it went into limited release, whereas the others have always been dumped on Cartoon Network or DVD or wherever. Believe it or not, it actually played in my dinky-assed market (Tampa) but only for two days, and in a really bad neighborhood (University Square Mall) which I just kinda didn’t want to chance after dark. I’m uneasy in that place during the day. There’s only like 6 or 7 stores still open, and it’s mostly gangs and pushers and hookers wandering around. Which is a shame because they blew a lot of money building that new food court.

But I digress…

Pokemon movies are always much better looking than you’d expect. Yeah, they’re generally disappointing, and the stories are frequently meh and the scripts don’t really feel fully-cooked, presumably because they’re cranking out one of these a year. Even so, they’re way, way better animated than the shows, and the shorts before the film are adorable, so even if it’s a terrible flick you can just zone out and enjoy it for how pretty it is. Except for “Genesect and the Legend Awakened.” That one sucked.

But I’m not digressing this time: This movie is absolutely far-and-away the most gorgeous Pokemon film ever. It’s nearly Studio Ghibli quality in some parts. They really pulled out all the stops for this one as part of the “Wow, can you believe it’s been two decades and we’re still going strong?” celebration.

Of course even coming up with a concept for a movie like this is difficult. What can you give the fans that they haven’t already seen a dozen times before? You can’t just dump another “Jirachi The Wishmaker,” on them. They need something new and different. At the same time, it needs to be a celebration of the past of the franchise. What do you do? What do you do?

The solution was pretty brilliant: Do an alternate-world version of the start of Ash’s adventures. I admit I thought this was pretty dodgy when I first heard of it, but, yeah, it really was clever.

The first 10 minutes are basically a remake of the first episode of the entire series in compressed form. Ash gets Pikachu, who doesn’t like him, they head off on their Pokemon Journey. They get in trouble, Ash risks his life and gets injured saving Pikachu, and they’re best friends from then on. At the end of the episode they see Ho-Oh, one of the legendary Pokemon. There’s no real significance to this, it’s just an omen of a bright future for him. In the next episode he meets his companion Misty, and an episode after that he meets Brock, and that’s your basic lineup for the next six years.

In this version of things, Ho-Oh happens to drop a feather while flying overhead. Ash catches it, and as a result he goes off on a different course. He turns left instead of right, basically. As a result he never meets Misty or Brock, and he’s on his own a lot longer. This results in him being less successful as a trainer, but more self-reliant than we’re used to seeing him. We see all this mostly in montage, but eventually he meets up with two never-before-heard-of companions: A girl named Verity and Sorrel, a wiser, more intellectually curious trainer.

They quickly recognize the importance of the feather, and the three of them spend the rest of the movie on a side-quest, finding their way to Ho-Oh, rescuing Charmander from an abusive trainer, and having repeated run-ins with the trainer, who’s the closest thing this movie has to a big bad.

Eventually they meet Ho-Oh in the climax, the bad guy is defeated and is somewhat repentant, Ash and his new pals go their separate ways, “And the journey continues.”

What makes this brilliant? Well, we do get to see Classic Ash again (And Pikachu is even somewhat redesigned to look midway between his current appearance and the older “90s Chu” version. We get to revisit a bunch of stuff from the first year of the show and yet it all feels new because it’s fundamentally not retreading the same old ground.

It’s also interesting because the stakes aren’t so high. We’ve already seen Ash save the world 6 or 7 times in 20 films, and save cities at least as many. (Honestly, Ash seems chosen of the Pokegods to be their fixer) This time out nothing much is at risk, other than an evil ghost type trying to corrupt the feather which…will be bad for some reason I never quite understood. It’s a personal story. It looks in instead of out, and that’s really what they needed to do here.

The relationship between Pikachu and Ash is pretty heartwarming. They have always been close, of course, but here it’s more like father and child or big brother and little brother. We see a lot of scenes of them just playing, and there’s no other way to say it, it’s just cute as hell. We also find out the reason for the twenty-year mystery as to why Pikachu refuses to go into his pokeball. A lot of people have complained about that scene, and the answer honestly doesn’t entirely make sense, but if it doesn’t make you tear up a little bit, then you just don’t have a heart. Pikachu’s reaction when Ash dies is also pretty gut-wrenching, though undercut a bit because we know he won’t stay dead. (Ash is very death-prone, but he always resurrects. Again: Chosen of the pokegods)

The B-story about Charmander and his evil trainer is good, too. The first scene is Ash walking along in the woods in the rain. He sees a Charmander sitting on a rock, looking like an abandoned baby, which, of course he is. This is a near-recreation of the same sequence from the show, but in THIS version, when Charmander’s master comes out of the woods, Charmander jumps up and runs towards him with his arms outstretched like a scared toddler (Which he is) and hugs his leg, and the trainer just kicks him away. Again, if this doesn’t put a lump in your throat then you’re probably just not a good person.

There’s also some trippy sequences like the one where Ash hallucinates our world, the real world, and doesn’t even remember Pokemon exist.

Reviews for this movie have not been very good. That’s fair. I’ll be honest: Some of this stuff lands and some of it doesn’t. I get why they did what they did. They took some chances. The story lacks urgency given the absence of a threat, which probably put some people off. The character of Verity doesn’t make much of an impression. Sorrell is a little on the bland side, but a really harrowing flashback to him as a kid more than makes up for that (Again: Lump-in-the-throat time. If it doesn’t affect you, you should probably seek counseling). There’s no real reason for Team Rocket to keep showing up. I get them turning up in a cameo or something, but their repeated appearances through the film add nothing and simply aren’t funny.  Ash’s brief time in the world of the dead is cool looking (And eerily similar to his pokemon-free dream sequence earlier on), but it lacks payoff. It feels like he should have done something there, something that he wasn’t able to do when alive, though I have no idea what that might be. And, yes, they didn’t explore the alternate timeline as thoroughly as they could have.

Just the same…this whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It took a big chance, unlike the others, and is flat-out gorgeous, and is the only Pokemovie that ever raised any real emotions in me. Strongly reccomended.

MOVIE REVIEW: “Santa Claus Conquers The Martians” (1964)

[THIS REVIEW WAS ORIGINALLY POSTED ON A DIFFERENT WEBSITE IN 2010]

Merry Christmas.

I have a strange affinity for this movie. When I was a kid, periodically, our teachers would herd us all into the cafeteria twice a year while we waited for our parents to come and pick us up rather than have us ride the buses like normal. They’d have us watch one of two movies – “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” and a more-or-less-forgotten Disney film called “Melody Time.” (1948) I never quite figured out why they did this, but I suspect it was so that we’d be out from underfoot while our parents were Christmas shopping or whatever, since it always happened on the last day of school before Christmas break. I never really figured out why they had us watch the Disney flick, it must have been tied to something, but I don’t know what, or why. Oh, and now that I think on it, they used to show us the old “Ichabod Crane” Disney cartoon before Halloween. For whatever reason, I must have seen this movie three or four times in as many years.

I didn’t remember too much about it – the only bit I remembered in any detail was the kids mistaking a robot on the horizon for Santa’s workship, and some little green martian kids having no clue what Christmas or presents were. I always looked forward to it. I liked the movie. I was an addlepated kid, evidently. Years later, in high school and college, when the subject of truly horrible films came up, no one could ever believe that I’d seen this film, much less that I’d seen it multiple times, and kinda’ liked it.

PLAY BY PLAY

Right off the bat, we’re treated/tortured with a hopelessly happy-awful song. If you’re a guy like me who doesn’t really like Christmas, and if the cloying faux sentimentality of Old Saint Nick mostly just makes you want to punch someone, you’re gonna’ find this all a little much to bear:

What I find particularly hateful about this is the way these New Yawk children keep calling Santa “Santy” (Which rhymes with women’s underwear.) I don’t know why that sets me off, but it does. It’s cootish, like the way you’d expect people to say his name back when people still called policemen “Bulls” and Teddy Roosevelt was contemplating a third term.

A couple Martian children on Mars are watching a news broadcast from earth about Santa, featuring a man interviewing Santa (Who’s real) at the North pole, in his workshop staffed by three midgets. (There woulda’ been more, I guess, but the Fairlyland Creatures Union Local #207 decided to strike. I made that up, because that would have been interesting. Nothing interesting happens in this film.) On Mars, the children are acting weirdly (for Martians), so Kemar calls a meeting of the Martian Council, and they meet up in the spooky valley to get advice from the 800-year-old wizard of overacting, who chews the scenery for a bit in this odd sequence:

Sorry for the MST3k bit, it was the only clip I could find. The Martian council decide ‘hey, screw all our governmental duties, let’s head to earth and kidnap a mythical being!’ This they then do. Now, the Martians have cloaking device technology, but they just don’t bother to turn it on until Earth (Read: The United States) has already noticed them. Then they turn it on, but nothing happens. A quick inspection of the “Radar Box” shows that the malfunction was caused by Dropo, Kemar’s idiot butler, who stowed away inside a piece of equipment. We’re given a couple minutes of stock footage of the US Armed Forces scrambling as if for nuclear attack to check out the UFO. Then the Cloak kicks in, and Dr. Werner von Green (heavy sigh) says it was probably just a meteor or something.

Cut to: two blandly cute kids on earth, one of whom is Pia Zadora. The other one isn’t Pia Zadora, and that’s really all he’s got going for him. The Martians kidnap them, and Voldar – who has a fake mustache – attempts to be mean to them, but Kemar is an enlightened despot who forbids such things. The two of them go off to do Martian things, while Dropo takes the kids on a tour of the control room. The bosses are coming back, so he stashes the kids in the Radar Box, and leaves. The Martians discuss their nefarious plan to kidnap Santa. Once the ship lands at The North Pole (Magnetic or Geographic? This is just one of the many thorny theological quandaries this film refuses to tackle), the kids disable the Cloaking Device, escape the ship and run away. Kemar and Krew head off to bag Santa, while Voldar heads off to kill the kids, or maybe just beat them up real bad, which always cheers him up when he’s sitting around being depressed by how unconvincing his mustache is. (I made that up, because that would have been interesting. Nothing interesting happens in this film.) The kids are hidden in a cave, but before Voldar can kill them or give them a stern talking to, or whatever it is he has planned, a man in a polar bear costume shows up and scares him away. (Just for clarity’s sake, he’s not *supposed* to be a man in a polar bear suit. I think he’s supposed to be a real polar bear, but I have a sharper eye than most, and I spotted it. Those of you less experienced that I may have a harder time with this.)

The kids go looking for Santa’s worship and we come to the one scene in this movie that I remember clearly in which Pia Zadora says she sees the windows all lit up in the distance. These turn out to be the glowing eyes of a hokey robot that grabs the kids while they stand around like idiots, rather than running away because the set is too small for them to run anyway. Voldar tells the robot to kill them or hug them to death or something, but Kemar has the robot programmed to only obey him, so no dice.

From there, the plot lumbers over to Santa’s Worship, where the Robot is supposed to grab the old fat dude (who also has a fake mustache, *and* a fake beard), but immediately shuts down and becomes a toy when in his presence. Kemar and Voldar bust in and grab the guy, and in the process we learn that Mrs. Claus (Who’s actually named “Mary Christmas” – she’s a liberated chick who kept her maiden name, y’see. I made that up, because that would have been interesting. Nothing interesting happens in this film.) is a bit of a harpie, evidently.

So on to the ship everyone goes, and – zang – off to Mars. Of course the Cloak isn’t working, so we see stock footage of the armed forces going to kick the Martian’s green butts yet again, and then a quick interview with Werner von Green (Who also has a fake mustache) telling how they’re launching astronauts to rescue Santa and the two kids. How they’ve figured out Santa and two kids are gone is really anyone’s guess, the authorities just seem to instantly know this kind of thing, which implies a kind of Orwellian police state, but obviously that can’t be what they were going for because that would have been interesting. Nothing interesting happens in this film. We see a lot of stock footage of a rocket launching, and one of the Martians says they’re being followed, but of course nothing comes of this.

Meanwhile, Voldar attempts to off Santa and the kids in the airlock, but if a fat tub of geriatric guts like Santa can fit through a chimney, he sure as shooting can fit through an air vent. It’s kinda’ like that X-files episode with the guy who can throw his entire body out of joint to crawl through tiny spaces, and then he eats people. Remember that? Not that that happens in this film because that would be interesting, and as you may have already recognized, there’s a bit of a thematic motif in this film which prevents anything interesting from happening.

So on Mars, Kemar takes Santa and the kids to meet his kids, and a whole lot of fake laughter ensues. No one talks, mind you, they just laugh for something like three minutes, because nothing pads out a film like pointless mirth. Really there’s a whole heck of a lot of pointless fake laughter in this film.

[PLEASE NOTE: The original clip I linked to is no longer on YouTube. Sorry]

The particular scene in question takes place at about 1:12 in the clip. It’s disquieting. Seriously, just listen to that montage – maybe play it on a loop – and it’s impossible to imagine yourself walking around inside your house doing anything apart from sinking knives in the walls for no good reason. This is exactly the kind of thing that the Punk movement was rebelling against, and, I suspect, exactly the kind of thing the hippie movement secretly wanted more of, then got all pissy and self-indulgent when they realized they couldn’t have it, so they just took drugs and had lots of sex and caught crabs instead. I assume. It’s hard to really understand what filthy hippies want.

Soooooooooooooooooooo anyway, as best I can figure, they decide to have a Martian Christmas, and they set up an automated toy factory staffed by child labor, rather than midgets because Mars evidently has fairly lax laws on the subject. Voldar, meanwhile, for no adequately explained reason, is hiding in a fake looking cave outside of town. Evidently he’s an outcast, on the run, turned out by polite society, though I’m not sure why. I presume it had something to do with him trying to murder three people – one of them mythical, the other one Pia Zadora, who might also be mythical – but I really don’t know. The copy I was watching was kind of sketchy and had clearly been re-spliced a couple times. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a scene missing. Or maybe I just nodded off there for a minute. That wouldn’t surprise me much, either.

So Voldar decides they can’t just kill Santa (For no explained reason), instead they sneak into the toy factory and sabotage it. While there, Dropo walks in dressed like Santa because Dropo is an idiot. Voldar’s an idiot too, and doesn’t realize it’s not Santa, despite the fact that he’s green and has the same kind of stupid helmet everyone else on Mars wears.

Santa discovers the machine has been sabotaged, meanwhile Voldar tells Kemar that Santa (It’s actually Dropo, don’t be frightened kids. Whereas everyone loves Santa, pretty much everyone wants to see Dropo get hurt.) is a hostage, and will be released if Kemar accedes to his demands. Voldar’s demands, that is, not Santa’s. Or Dropo’s. Of course Kemar’s the closest thing to a non-idiot on Mars, and he just beats the crap out of the two of them, shoves ’em in a closet, and begins to interrogate them. The bad guy get the drop on him, however, and beat the crap out of him, and escape the closet…but can they escape the hall it’s attached to? Seriously, they just stand around for like ten minutes in a six-by-six set, it’s claustrophobic *AND* visually uninteresting.

Back in the fake cave of fakeness, Dropo acts out of character and figures a way to escape, and makes his way back to the city or…house…or…really wherever it is that the “Action” is taking place. Voldar attacks the kids, but they hold him off using toys, after which Kemar comes to and arrests the guy. He’s crying, and his fake mustache is all soggy and even faker-looking.

Santa decides that Dropo would make a good Martian Santa, and then heads back to Earth with Pia Zadora and the kid who isn’t Pia Zadora.

Cue closing credits, annnnnnnd the end. What? Oh? Still running a bit short? Ok…uhm…run the lyrics to the song after the credits, as if it’s a singalong…………annnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnd…

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

Despite all my snark, this is a perfectly tolerable kids movie. The SF trappings are probably intended as mild parody of the crappy SF TV shows of the 50s, and frankly things aren’t terribly much faker than episodes of “Tom Corbet, Space Cadet” and “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger.” I mean, how else are we to make sense of the clearly-joking “Food Pills” stuff? Yeah, it’s a belabored running gag that isn’t remotely funny, but clearly it’s *supposed* to be funny, clearly they’re making fun of the tired old food-pill trope that had been showing up in literary SF for a generation, and in film SF for a decade or so. (For instance, it figures prominently in “Conquest of Space.”

Production values are worlds higher than “Forbidden Zone,” which is the yardstick I use for these things, and bear in mind that this is a film that’s intended for really young kids. I *loved* this movie in first and second grade, and probably third as well. All my little friends loved it, too, and I don’t remember anyone talking trash about it back in the day. It’s perfectly acceptable for kids in the same way that Barney the Purple Dinosaur and Romper Room are entirely acceptable for kids. They see and experience things differently than we do, so it’s kind of disingenuous to complain about the movie because it doesn’t have gore and knife fights and gory knife fights and a heavy metal soundtrack and whatnot because obviously those things aren’t age appropriate.

Unlike most of the people who run SF fansites, I have no real pretension. I’m an idiot, and I admit that freely. Rather than try to hide my mistakes, I draw attention to them, fess up, and move on. Case in point: I wrote this whole review assuming the little blonde girl was Pia Zadora. In fact, she’s not. She’s Donna Confortini, who never did anything in film apart form this movie. Pa Zadora is “Girmar,” the little Martian girl. Wow! What a huge mistake to make! Now, a lesser man than me would go through the review and fix that, trying to cover his tracks, but not me: I’m just honest and lazy enough to leave it the way I wrote it. Pia would have been about 10 when this movie was made. Despite being a bit old for that sort of thing by then, Pia would go on to have a minor career playing a sex kitten in movies that were essentially cheap sexed-up uncredited remakes of other movies: “Butterfly” (1982) was a slutty version of “Lolita” (1961), and “The Lonely Lady” (1983) was an even more slutty version of “The Oscar” (1966).

From an adult perspective, Dropo is the absolute worst kind of character in a film – a guy who’s not even remotely funny, but whom we’re *told* is a scream. We’re subjected to a lot of pointless mugging of the camera. He’s really so bad that I feel kind of embarrassed for him, I kind of don’t want to give his real name or talk about his career. He seems kind of vulnerable. “Voldar” was played by character actor Vincent Beck, who was on a jillion shows in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Apart from that, really no one in this movie ever went on to do anything of note.

It’s interesting to me that during the course of the movie, no one ever mentions how all those poor kids back on earth will be shafted because Santa’s trapped on Mars. Also, did the Astronauts get back to Earth? Did they land on Mars nine months later, guns a-blazing and kill everyone they met? What happened next? I think there’s a fine concept for a sequel there that no one ever really explored.

The Martians are, frankly, embarrassing. Guys in green tights and makeup. They all wear motorcycle helmets with the goggles turned upside down so the nose part is pointing up, all spray painted green, with some flexi-pipe on one side, and some TV Rabbit Ears attached. It’s sad, really.

The brief shots of the spaceship in flight are actually kinda’ cool. I found myself wondering if they’d been stolen from some other film.

Ok, I’m tired of typing. Suffice it to say that this is a really, really, really bad film that is bad in the exactly specific kind of way that makes you kind of sad for everyone in the film, you know? They just wanted to make something nice for the kids, and in a lot of ways they succeeded, but the movie is so cheap, so shoddy, so poorly acted, so badly thought out that it’s hard to overlook that.

It’s like when you’re ten and your mom tries to make you a cake for your birthday, only she can’t cook, and ends up with this amorphous disaster, swathed in way too much icing to hide the deformities: Yeah, it’s terrible, but you can’t actually complain to her, can you? I mean, she tried, right? And she already knows she failed – I mean, you saw her crying quietly to herself in the kitchen, right? Would it be any better if you pointed out to her what a bad job she did? No, obviously not. She’s got a hard life, getting harder all the time, and let’s face it, you’re no picnic, kiddo. So you just sit there, pretending the burned, rock-hard flinders drowned in icing are tasty, and that you don’t notice how bad it is, and she just sits there, knowing you know, and feeling bad that you’re having to put the effort into hiding your feelings, which makes her feel worse, and of course you feel bad because (A) you didn’t get a good cake and (B) you don’t even get to feel bad about it because your mom is obviously in a bad way and (C )your every effort to make your mom feel better makes her feel worse in that spooky grownup way that no 10-year-old understands, and (D) the damn bowling game you got is making you upset because everyone at the party is better at it than you, thus everything everyone does makes the both of you feel worse, and you hurt for everyone at pretty much every turn.

This *WHOLE* movie is like that.

I want to hate it, but these people are so inept, so clearly out of their depth that you kind of feel bad for them. I mean, most of them never went on to do anything, and one of them grew up to be Pia Zadora, which is obviously punishment enough. The whole thing just makes me sad on so many different levels. There’s my empathy for the people who made this thing, there’s my nostalgia for the kid I once was, who was so vastly different from the adult I now am that he actually enjoyed this film, and there’s my sadness that I can no longer enjoy it.

As I said at the outset, I’m not a Christmasy kind of guy. I don’t like it. Too much stress, too many out of pocket expenses, too much cloying tripe. It’s been decades since I felt anything other than dread at Christmas, certainly any sense of the sacred was long ago washed out of it by Madison avenue and my own childhood greed. There’s nothing I look forward to about it, I’m just numb.

On that level, this movie is a success, in that normally I feel nothing, but this film makes me sad in a very Christmas kind of way.

This film is in public domain, which means you can legally watch it free online in several locations.

MST3K did it, and I’m told Starship Titanic did a version of it, too. If you’d like another view on this one, which is different from my own, yet strangely similar, check out this one here

And that’s about it. Merry Christmas. Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever. Pass that bottle, would ya? Thanks. Hey, who does a guy have to kill to get a slice of lime around here?

MOVIE REVIEW: “Silent Running” (1972)

It is the future! The year 2008! In this far distant tomorrow which took place nine years ago, the earth has been completely defoliated. Such nature as remains has been relegated to some habitats on six huge American Airlines space freighters, orbiting Saturn. It’s an amazingly expensive, horribly boring undertaking, so fortunately all of that takes place offscreen before the movie begins. The bad news? Joan Baez sings.

Once that unpleasantness is out of the way (Seriously: why did anyone anywhere ever like Joan?) we find ourselves on the Valley Forge, one of the freighters in the fleet. These ships are operating on a sub-skeleton crew of just four people, rotated through in six-month shifts. Twitchy self-righteous hippie Bruce Dern has done sixteen straight hitches! He’s an environmentalist, you see, and he’s taken it upon himself to preserve the last forests. The crew – blue collar types – ride him kind of hard because of his eccentricities, but one of them actually kind of stands up for him a little bit. Dern doesn’t really seem to notice this kindness much.

The word comes through from earth: the program has been cancelled. The crews are to eject the domes, blow ‘em up with thermos-sized nukes (“Termos-nuclear weapons?” Huh? Huh?), and return their ships to commercial service. This they then do. There’s lots of shots of cute, happy little bunnies that are about to be atomized intercut with them setting up the bombs and cutting the domes loose. It’s hardly subtle.

Bruce wigs out and kills the guy who was nice to him with a shovel, then he launches and nukes another of the domes with the remaining crew members aboard. He has the neat little robots (Huey, Dewey and Louie, no, really!) chuck a bunch of supplies out one of the airlocks, and sends of a fake panicky message to the rest of the fleet, babbling about an explosion and the rest of the crew is dead, and blah blah blah. He fires the engines, and the Valley Forge moves through the umbra of Saturn.

The other ships aren’t close enough to rescue him – of course they don’t realize he doesn’t want to be rescued – and they point out that his course will take him through the rings, whereupon his ship will probably be destroyed.

Anderson: “These ships weren’t meant to shoot the rapids. There’s no way to reach you before that happens. Your name is Lowell, is it?”

Dern: “Yes.”

Anderson: “Lowell, you might want to think about…”

Dern: “Taking my own life?”

Anderson: “Yes.”

Dern: “Oh, no sir, I don’t think I could ever do a thing like that.”

Anderson: [long pause] “You’re a very brave American, Lowell.”

Dern: “Thank you, sir. [turns off radio] I think I am.”

Having gotten messed up in the fight to kill the only guy on the crew who was nice to him, Dern reprograms the “Drones” to perform surgery on him. It’s a mildly freaky scene. Afterwards they hit the rings, and one of the drones is lost to space.

From this point in, the movie is pretty dull. Fairly clever in places, but pretty dull just the same. We get a lot of scenes of Dern teaching the surviving drones to take care of the plants in the one remaining dome, playing cards with them (They cheat), and trying to interact with them on a friendly level, though this is clearly shown to be a dead end: they simply aren’t human, though they appear to be mostly sapient.

Dern struggles with flashbacks and guilt during all this, and has the drones bury the body of the guy he killed with the shovel – he can’t bear to do it himself. He attempts to say a prayer/give a eulogy for the guy before they throw him in the hole (Dern can’t bear to say “put him in the hole” either), but he makes a totally ineffectual hash of this as well, and kind of breaks down. It’s a fairly raw scene, and genuinely kind of moving. It’s one of two truly “Bruce Dern” scenes in the film, if you know what I mean.

Eventually he hits one of the remaining drones with a dune buggy while tear-assing around the cargo bay (It’s a BIG ship!) and cripples it. There’s a kind of neat, kind of touching scene of him trying to repair it – again, ineffectually – while the other drone looks on.

The forest starts to die, and Lowell can’t figure it out, though it’s obviously because they’re so far away from the sun that the plants can’t photosynthesize (Stupid hippie!). One of the other ships from the cargo fleet contacts him and tells him they’re a rescue party. Lowell’s been on his own for months at this point, maybe a year. The absolute best-acted scene in the movie is when the rescue ship attempts to contact him on the radio, and he literally can not comprehend what’s going on. This is the other truly “Bruce Dern” scene.

He realizes that he’s screwed – though of course he never really had a plan anyway, he’s just been reacting all along – but he (Finally) figures out the light thing, and sets the dome up with a bunch of billion-watt bulbs, and has the remaining unscathed drone take care of it in perpetuity. Speaking to the crippled drone, he says “When I was a kid I put my name and address in a bottle and threw it into the sea. I never knew if anyone found it.“ He ejects the dome, and as it rockets away from the freighter, Dern blows up the Valley Forge with some leftover nukes.

The final scene is the dome floating through space, tended by the lone remaining drone, while Joan Baez sings.

The End

OBSERVATIONS

This one didn’t really hold up as well in reality as it did in my memories. I was fascinated by this movie long before I actually saw it, mainly for the radical spaceship design and the cool clunky, functional look of the technology on it, as seen in stills in various magazines and books. When I finally watched it, I was a bit disappointed. The message was fairly obvious, but on the bright side the morality is somewhat more ambiguous than you’d get if this film were made today. Interestingly so, really.

For starters, Lowell is a mess. He kills three guys in cold blood – one of whom they make a point of showing us was married, and had a kid – hijacks a ship, and runs away into the night. He feels really badly about this, of course, but pushes that aside mostly and considers himself to be an American hero. He’s very out of touch with reality. He’s been on these ships for eight years, and when word comes in that there’s some big news coming up, he’s convinced they’re going to bring the forests back to earth, even when everyone else knows full well it’s going to be budget cuts. He won’t listen. He’s monomaniacal. He’s not all that bright. He can reprogram a droid and pilot a freighter, but he can’t figure out that plants need light to live.

I can not stress that enough: He’s an environmentalist who can’t figure out that plants need light to live!

He has more of an emotional relationship with three robots – which the movie shows us again and again is a dead end – than he did with the humans on the crew. He has all this advanced technology and robot slave labor, and he can’t think of anything to do with it apart from teach the drones how to play cards.

Most tellingly, he rails on early in the movie about how awful earth is now that nature is gone: Everywhere you go on earth, it’s 75 degrees. There’s no more poverty, everyone has a job, no one goes hungry anymore. He says these things as though they’re bad. I’ll grant the thin description we get sounds a bit like living in a shopping mall, but, hey, I’m a geek: that’s kind of a dream of mine anyway. That or a World’s Fair. (Preferably the 1967 World’s Fair. That’d be sweet!) My point being that while the utter destruction of nature is clearly a bad thing, the whole ‘full employment/no poverty/no hunger’ thing sounds pretty good. Curiously, he never makes any scientific arguments – presumably because he doesn’t know any – and bases his whole righteously indignant argument on emotionalism and nostalgia.

I think this is deliberate. I think we’re supposed to identify with Lowell, but I don’t think we’re really supposed to like him all that much. I mean, they hired Bruce Dern to play him, a guy who was primarily known for playing twitchy psychopaths up to that point. (Arguably he does that again here.) I think the script is deliberately addressing the human cost of the story: four people and two drones ultimately die, and Lowell is a pretty sad excuse for a hero. At no point does he ever have a clue about what he’ll do next. In fact, rather than rallying on earth trying to gain support for re-forestation, which might have accomplished something, he’s been hiding out in space for nearly a decade, dreaming his dreamy little dreams…the more you look at the movie, the more of a wreck you realize the guy is.

Bruce Dern plays this well. He’s effectively onscreen alone for 45 minutes, and while some scenes (Such as playing cards with the crew, or playing cards with the Drones) are stagey and ring false, the scenes of him retreating into himself, and daydreaming of living on a verdant earth that must never have existed in his lifetime are very well done. There are face actors like, say, Tom Hanks or Patrick Stewart, where you can kind of see what’s going on inside their heads. With Lowell, it’s clear that there really isn’t much going on behind his face, and what there is he’s trying to suppress.

It’s an interesting choice. Today they’d make it all jingoistic and “Oooh-Rah! Nature! Yeah!” It’s kind of ballsy to have a protagonist who’s clearly a bad man doing a good thing in a very bad way.

The visuals aren’t as good as I remembered, though this film provides a very obvious ‘missing link’ in the evolution of special effects. 2001 (Douglas Trumble)–> Silent Running (Trumble, John Dykstra) –> Star Wars (Dykstra). You can see very strong elements of those two other films in this one. If these ships look familiar, it’s because stock footage of them turned up in Battlestar Galactica (1978) as the “Agro Ships” that provided all the Rag Tag Fleet’s food. The design is beautifully ugly, no Star Trek sleekness here.

There are six ships, by the way: The Yellowstone, the Arcadia, the Blue Ridge, the Mohave, the Berkshire, and the Valley Forge. The Berkshire is clearly the flagship of the fleet.

In the beginning of the film, we hear a voice over by the American President delivering an address, “In this first year of a new century” explaining sending the forests off into space. We’re later told the program’s been running eight years, which makes it 2008 or early 2009. It’s never stated, but it’s pretty obvious that the program is being cancelled as a consequence of a presidential election back home. This is a very American movie. Everyone in the film is a yank. There’s not even any token internationalism (I find that oddly refreshing). It’s implied – but again, unstated – that the other nations of earth didn’t even attempt to save anything when they deforested.

Logically, not much of this makes sense: Why ship the forests off to Saturn? Why not just plunk ‘em in Earth Orbit, or, failing that, somewhere closer to the sun? Why do they need the freighters anyway? The domes have their own life support and gravity, and they evidently can operate indefinitely on their own, so why not just cut ‘em loose? (Though to be fair, Lowell thinks this is a solution, but he’s hardly the most sane knife in the fountain) Why was the whole world deforested? Dialog implies a massive environmental re-engineering project that was clearly successful, but they say there’s not so much as a blade of grass left on earth, and I think we’re supposed to take that literally. Why? Presumably this is overpopulation nonsense, but then there’s a lot of muddy thinking in the ecolologicalism of this movie.

There’s some interesting implications in the movie that they never develop: these freighters are HUGE, and there’s six of ‘em, probably more in commercial service elsewhere. How big of a space industry to you need to justify ships this large, and this many of ‘em? There must have been MASSIVE offworld colonies!

Is 2008 too early for this movie? In hindsight, yeah, but at the time, Apollo was still going on, and people took space colonization to be a fait acompli. I mean, look at the massive space stations and lunar cities of 2001 (1968)!

The ship scenes were filmed on a World War II Essex-Class aircraft carrier that had been decommissioned, and was waiting for a trip to the breakers. Just a month after filming ended, the ship no longer existed. That said, we don’t really see much of it – five or six rooms, one hallway, the hangar deck. They give a sense of massive size, but they don’t utilize it much. They had this giant ship at their disposal, but they didn’t have enough budget to really utilize it, I presume.

In the original script, the ship wasn’t called the “Valley Forge.” When the Navy gave ‘em permission to film on the carrier – the USS Valley Forge (CV-45) they decided to rename it in the script.

I once read an interview in Starlog with Douglas Trumble who talked about the original script for this movie. Initially it wasn’t even remotely intended to be an ecological fable, but rather was a first contact tale: the ship is about to be retired and scrapped, and the captain is about to be put out to pasture. He steals the ship and heads off into space, hanging out with his three robot buddies and gradually going a bit nuts. Eventually he receives a signal that he realizes is from aliens. The ship’s owners, meanwhile, are chasing him, and he goes into ‘silent running mode’ (like on a sub) to make it hard to find him. The rest of the movie is a race against time to contact the aliens before his own people get him. Ultimately, he sends one of the drones out in a pod on a course to intercept the aliens, and he’ll communicate with them through the robot. The cops bust in and kill him with a flamethrower, however, so the little Drone, not knowing what to do, just pulls out a snapshot of itself with the other two ‘bots and the captain – a ‘family photo.’ The aliens are confused and don’t know what to make of this, though it’s obviously rather poignant. For some reason.

The End.

Growing up, my more Right Wing friends disliked this movie for obvious reason. However he more I watched it, the more I realized this isn’t quite the propaganda it’s purported as. Rather, it’s an entirely different kind of propaganda. It’s not “Freeman Lowell is an ecological messiah who dies to save nature itself,” but rather “Things have come to a sorry pass when we have to rely on ineffectual losers like this.” The movie is interesting because it isn’t about the war to save the biosphere – that war was lost long before the movie even starts – this is just the shouting that takes place afterwards. This isn’t a terribly pro-green movie, it’s more like a criticism of the environmental movement of the 1960s/70s.

If you go at it from that angle, it’s pretty interesting, if a bit dull. If you go at it from the straight-ahead angle that pretty much everyone, left or right or indifferent, takes on it, it’s really just dull.

MOVIE REVIEW: “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” (2017)

It’s completely unfair to compare one movie to another in order to judge it, rather than letting it stand on its own merits, or lack thereof. In this instance, however, it’s impossible not to: Both this film, and The Fifth Element (1997) were written and directed by Luc Besson. While both films are very different, they also couldn’t be more similar. In essence, “Valerian,” serves as an example of how easy it would have been for “The Fifth Element” to go horribly, horribly, horribly wrong.

Yeah, yeah, I know that’s unfair. It’s also true. Moving on:

The film tells the story of Valerian and Laureline, an impossibly young couple of badass special ops/secret agent types for the government of the galaxy in the 28th century. They get called in to recover the last living example of an animal, and in the process get swept up in a great big conspiracy on an impossibly huge space station to….[sigh]…you know, there’s not really very much plot here. The conspiracy is primarily an excuse for running and jumping and shooting and ruminations on the salvific power of love, and also a small role for Rhianna. Not much else matters here, but it’s actually not dissimilar to Titan A.E. (2000), a crappy movie written by Joss Whedon and Ben Edlund. You’d think woulda been a slam dunk, but, nope. Likewise, you’d figure Besson revisiting the same general parameters of The Fifth Element would have been a slam dunk or at least a dunk, or, you know, at least a basket, but, nope, you’d be wrong about that, too.

I’m not gonna waste a lot of time on the plot. To be fair, The Fifth Element didn’t have a lot of plot either (Evil force wants to destroy earth for some reason. Cool guy and unbelievably gorgeous badass girl stop it, with help from a priest, hinderance from a Cajun billionaire, and random histrionics from Chris Tucker), but there it works and here it doesn’t. Why?

A large part of that is charisma. Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevigne are no Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich. I can’t stress that enough: Bruce Willis was at the peak of his Bruce Willisness at the time, which has, sadly, receeded with time. Milla, though never the greatest actress, has always oozed magnetism far in excess of her looks (And her looks are pretty great on their own). He had a tired-but-still-cockshure swagger, and she had a mix of vulnerable badassitude and innocent sexyness that you can’t help but like. And they seemed to like each other.

Dane and Cara, by contrast, exude no sparks whatsoever, and the film works best when they’re not sharing the screen. Cara is very pretty, and an a very successful model, edging into acting, pretty much just like Milla was twenty years ago, and a lot of her scenes aren’t bad, but somehow, she lacks the utterly va-va-voom quality. Dane is more of a cardboard standie than he is a character. His dialog sounds like he has no idea what his lines mean, and his delivery brings to mind an early, extra-stoned Keanu Reeves. He’s not nearly so handsome, though. His first scene involves him and Cara rolling over each other in a relative state of undress that is supposed to be sexy, but is somehow more chaste than a nun doing long division. Go figure. Besson generally has a good eye for casting, but here he’s completely off his game.

Apart from Rhianna – who is awesome – there are no side-characters of note to really pick up any of the slack. I can’t say enough good things about Rhianna, though. The closest Fifth Element analogue would be the Diva, but she’s much different, much expanded, and honestly the best thing about the movie, despite only being in it for about ten minutes. When she showed up, the energy level ramped up considerably, and I thought, “Oh, FINALLY, two thirds of the way through the movie finally found its feet,” but, nope. As soon as she’s gone, it falters again.

Another part of the problem is special effects. There are a ton of ’em here. I don’t think there’s a single FX-free shot in the entire movie, and it’s plenty-high quality, easily as good or better than Avatar. The character designs are much better than Avatar, and yet, somehow, it’s all so sugarless and bland. The CGI is rather gloomily-lit, which seems the convention of the day, though I’ve never understood why, and it’s hard to get worked up about the stuff we’re seeing, despite how expansive and expensive it is. Just as Cara arguably has a better body than Milla, and yet somehow lacks that certain special something that draws you to her, this movie has unquestionably better special effects that just kinda don’t leave much impression. “Yeah, they’re beautiful. Whatever. Next?” Just out of curiosity, I showed my mom – who has no interest in, nor understanding of Science Fiction – the trailers for The Fifth Element and Valerian, then asked her which seemed better to her. She immediabely picked Fifth Element because it was so much brighter, both visually and in tone. I can’t argue with that.

There’s a trend towards increasingly practical effects and sets thanks, mostly, to Disney’s new crop of Star Wars films, but it’d been going on for a while before that. Despite being 37 years old, The Empire Strikes Back, with its oldschool spectacle still looks pretty good, if dated. The far more recent prequels look like cutscenes from video games, and in another decade they’ll look like a trip to toontown. Seriously: Remember 25 years ago when Babyon 5 blew us all away visually? Have you seen it recently? Yikes! Painful. Likewise, Fifth Element has aged well, whereas this film, for all its cutting edge splendor, looks like, well, a Lucas film. That’s not a compliment.

The soundtrack is also disappointing. Eric Serra’s Fifth Element soundtrack is – if you can find a bootleg of it – still very good listening. Combining ethnic music, opera, hip hop, house beats, orchestral stuff, electronic stuff, and kitchen sinks, it was fairly experimental, but still melodic and reassuring enoguh to really drive the story. Even without the movie, it’s memorable. Alexandre Desplat’s Valerian score is a generic orchestral fare that continues the inexplicable current trend of soundtracks deliberately not drawing attention to themselves.

Besson’s obligatory ruminations on the God-like powers of love are present, but they’re hamstrung here, again, by the limp toast nature of our ostensible stars. Besson’s a good director. He even made me care a little bit about the couple in Angel-A (2006), which had about the least likely paring in film history, and not much story beyond “Believe in yourself,” and a semi-fallen angel who lures guys into the bathroom with promises of sex, then chastely beats them up and mugs them. How can he pull that off? How can he pull off a dorky concept like “Subway,” (1986, which I saw in the theaters back then, and which was my introduction to him) and somehow blow this? I dunno.

There are odd sutures in the screenplay that suggest it was re-written several times in a hurry, possibly on the fly while making the film. What are we to make of the scene where Valerian is given title to an entire kingdom/species, which has no payoff whatsoever? Or an extended introduction to the machine part of the space station, which we then never visit, and which has no relevance in the story? Those have got to be periscopes. There’s just oodles of exposition, too. Valerian rattles off his whole life in the lengthiest, clunkiest monologue in recent memory, but it’s supposed to sound conversational. The ships’ computer does the same thing about The City. It just keeps happening.

The film is not without its good bits. The opening montage, showing the evolution of The City from 1975 to the 24th century was every bit as effortlessly clever and effective as Besson is on a good day. Rhianna, as I said, was really good. The gag with the had made me laugh my ass off. There’s a chase sequence that consists almost entirely of a tracking shot behind a guy as he runs through a series of walls that’s the best set piece in the film. Some people really like the Big Market sequence, though I found it a little distracting and confusing. The point is that there’s some good stuff here, there’s just not really a movie to tie them together.

I realize that this hasn’t been a fair review, and that all my complaints basically revolve around this not being “The Sixth Element.” It’s true that I did expect it to be the same, yet better. What I didn’t expect was, “The Fourth Element:” The same, yet worse. Devoid of everything that made the original a hoot.

MOVIE REVIEW: “Panic in Year Zero!” (1962)

The only thing better than discovering a B movie you’ve never seen in a genre you like is discovering a good B movie in that genre. “Panic in Year Zero!” is a damn good movie. Damn good, I say.

Directed by, and starring onetime-superstar Ray Milland, and co-starring a pre-beach-movie Frankie Avalon, along with a cast of nobodies, it tells the tribulations off a normal American family in World War III. Well, a normal American family with a dad who slips into a watered-down Welsh accent, but, hey, whatever.

Despite having a budget of a couple hundred bucks, plus whatever was left over at the Craft Services table when the previous production wrapped, the movie uses it exceptionally well. “Low Budget” doesn’t mean “Bad,” and if you use your low budget effectively, it can give you qualities that a bigger, slicker film can’t. This movie uses its limitations excellently. I expected it to be yet another ‘Family escapes, then gets attacked my mutant monsters’ turd. Instead, I got an intelligent, well directed, pretty well acted movie that both shows the best qualities of the mid-century American can-do attitude, and also how thin the veil of civilization really is. It pulls off the juggling act of optimism,  pessimism, and and mild action all at the same time.

Much like Red Dawn (The 1984, not the crappy remake), we start out with normal slice-of-life as the family gets ready to go on a fishing trip for the weekend. Shortly after they get into the foothills, they start seeing flashes and hearing booms they mistake for lightning. The dad quickly realizes the truth, and we get the ONE special effect in the film (A matte of a mushroom cloud with the cast staring at it from the road).

From there the tension ratchets up. All the radio stations are dead. They find one from Bakersfield which seems perfectly normal, but it abruptly goes dead. They pull over at a payphone to try to call grandma, but can’t get through. They start getting nearly run off the road by cars hauling ass out of the city. They stop at a restaurant, which is packed with scared people and running out of everything. This being almost the ’50s, the dad hits on the idea of pulling off the highway and driving through some of the smaller towns that may not have heard yet. This works for a while.

What makes this work is that the dad is a decent all-American (though occasionally Welsh-accented) guy, determined to be fair and decent with everyone. He is burdened with being the only one in his family who really grasps what’s going on, however, and the lines between what he will and won’t do blur pretty quickly. Initially he pays for gas when they need a refill, and pays for groceries – this being before the idea that money is useless has really sunk in yet – but pretty soon he’s beating people up to take what he needs, then leaving behind as much cash as he thinks is fair to salve his consciousness.

At one point he starts a fire to create a traffic jam so he can get his car across the highway and down a dirt road on the other side. This causes one oncoming car to burst into flames, and the driver to be clearly injured, but dad don’t stop.

What keeps this from going all Breaking Bad is that he sees what’s happening. He’ll do anything to keep his family safe (And fails, because he is just a guy, not some superman or army vet who’s trained for this stuff). Example:

Wife: “You can’t be so hard on yourself.”
Dad [depressed]: “I killed two men.”
Wife: “I tried to kill them, too, I just wasn’t a good enough shot.”

Later on, when his son, Frankie Avalon, shoots a guy in the arm, he gets a little too worked up over it. “I could have blown his head clean off!” He likes his newfound power. Dad tears into it, talking about how the best part of civilization is gone, and how they’re going to have to do some uncivilized things to survive, “But I want you to hate it. Every time you have to do something bad to another man, it’s your duty to hate it, because that’s all there is left of civilization: What’s inside of us. If we lose that, we’re no better than them.”

Eventually, they manage to find a place to hid out in the mountains, and do pretty well there for a couple months, with only infrequent news by radio (They get five minutes of emergency broadcasts every two hours, on the hour).

Then the film gets unexpectedly vicious. Some wandering thugs attack the daughter. Mom scares them off with a gun. Dad and Frankie come back to the camp, later on and see Daughter crying and the mom looking forlorn and holding her close. Dad asks, “Did they…hurt her?”

Mom nods, yes.

I was dropjawed! This is an early ’60s adventure film. Teenage girls don’t get raped in these movies! They make it very clear that she did, though. She behaves in a tragic fashion in the aftermath, apologizing to her dad as if it’s her fault, talking about how she doesn’t want to go back to civilization because she’s ‘not the same,’ and so on.

In a run in with the same thugs later on, we discover that they’ve murdered four people, and are holding another teenage girl prisoner, using her as a sex slave.

Again: holy crap!

This girl is a better actress then the daughter, and telegraphs the trauma better. There’s an oh-this-is-just-wrong romantic subplot about Frankie developing a crush on her and putting the moves on her, but before I could even say, “Oh, God, no, don’t go all stupid on me now,” the girl completely shuts him down, and he realizes what he’s done.

Later on someone gets shot and they need a doctor. On the way, they hear on the radio that the enemy has surrendered. They manage to find a doctor, who insists they roll up their sleeves before they come in (“Can’t be too careful. Junkies are everywhere”). Even as its drawing to a close, the film maintains its dual viewpoints

Dad: “The war’s over! We won!”
Doctor [sarcastically] “Well ding, ding for us.”
Dad [put off]: “You have a very odd sense of humor.”
Doctor: “The war is over, over there, but that doesn’t change anything over here. Now, you stay on the back roads. And you keep your gun handy. Our country is still full of thieving, murdering patriots.”

So Dad manages to keep his family alive, if not safe. Or does he? the movie is a little ambiguous about that as well. We don’t actually find out if the person who got shot survives or dies. It’s implied that probably survived, it’s made clear that they have a good chance of surviving, but the film steadfastly refuses to give us a clear-cut happy ending. All we’re told is that we can not allow endings, only new beginnings.

Wow! This is strongly recommended.

There’s negatives, of course. Frankie looks like a teenager, and him viewing the disaster as a fast track to becoming a man is a neat twist, but he’s not good enough to quite pull it off. The daughter is just a plain bad actress. The mom is a bit of a schlub. Frankie spends two days in a car with open windows, and never gets as much as a follicle out of place. Damn, that’s some hair helmet he’s got going on there. The soundtrack – a big, bold, jazzy, swingin’ score – is completely inappropriate for the movie. “The Wilderness” is clearly a soundstage, and some of the day-for-night shots are painfully obvious.

From a modern perspective, the movie is pretty sexist. Women are victims. They can’t defend themselves. They’re baggage. A lot of viewers may find this offensive or insulting.

From the perspective of the time, though, I think this is pretty on the mark. Women were not trained to be self-reliant. Given that their lives were intended to be cooking, cleaning, and shopping, I think the movie actually acquits itself pretty well. Mom is eventually packing a gun, as is one of the girls. Two girls get raped, but they don’t go suicidal or completely catatonic. It’s made clear that they’ll survive and they still have worth. They’ve been violated, they’ve not been sullied.

Bottom line: This is actually a better movie than a lot of big budget World War III films. It’s a forgotten minor classic. Watch it.

MOVIE REVIEW: “The Spy Who Loved Me” (1977)

There’s two kinds of James Bond movies: The good ones and the dumb ones. “The Spy Who Loved Me” is far and away my favorite of the dumb ones, and if I’m honest, it’s one of my favorite Bond films of all times.

That said, I was operating mostly on memory until yesterday. I’d videotaped it off of TV, trimmed for TV, full of commercial breaks, back around 1980, and as pretty much the only Bond flick I had, I watched it endlessly for a year or two. I honestly don’t think I ever saw the complete, uncut thing until this weekend. It was better than I remembered. I was pleasantly surprised.

Firstly, for a dumb film it’s not as dumb as I remembered. Apart from Kurt Jurgens’ dumb-but-cool Legion of Doom headquarters that rises out of the sea, they play the whole thing very straight. Even Jaws, the over-the-top murderous henchman, isn’t a cartoon. He’s genuinely frightening in some scenes (Such as on the train), he’s a seven-foot-tall freak of nature, insanely strong, and his unkillability just kind of seems believable.

Secondly, despite being a terrible, terrible actress, Barbara Bach makes an unusually strong partner in the film. As Bond’s more-or-less equal-and-opposite from the USSR, she’s not helpless, and contributes a good deal to the film in the first half. Watching her and Bond try to out-spy each other to get the MacGuffin was a lot of fun, and she does get the drop on him once or twice. When they’re partnered up in the second act of the film, she contributes less, and in the final act she’s basically a damsel in distress. That’s disappointing, and her whole “I’m going to kill you when the mission is over, James,” thing is resolved way too easily. Still, I’d say she’s easily the best Bond Girl since Tracy (1969) and prior to Natalya (1995).

Thirdly: The Liparus. It is the greatest and largest villain’s lair in the entire franchise, and even now, thirty-five years after I last saw the film, I’m in awe of it. It’s a life-size set with not one, but three full-sized submarine mock ups in it, and 1.2 million gallons of water. The final battle makes the ninja assault on SPECTRE’s volcano lair in You Only Live Twice seem like a minor tiff.

This is just an unspeakably lavish film in terms of set design. It’s the most Bondian looking Bond film ever. In addition to the Liparus, there’s Atlantis, the bad guy’s OTHER lair. (Yes, that’s right, the bad guy has TWO lairs!) The Naval Base office has a cool, slanted ceiling, is all pre-stressed concrete and glass walls, and must go back two hundred feet, and it’s only in one scene. The brig on the Liparus is equally huge, and again it’s only used once. The submarine sets – unrealistically huge – are pretty impressive. This whole thing just looks super-crazy-no-way-gonzo-over-the-top, and that’s honestly what we want, right? A bad guy who isn’t content to destroy the world, he’s going to destroy it with style.

In short, up until the one hour mark, it is a genuinely good Bond movie, which I think most people have forgotten. I know I did.

Right at the one hour mark, it turns into a live action cartoon, of course. I was watching it with my son when a motorcycle sidecar turns into a rocket. He said, “FINALLY,” with a kind of hilarious weariness. From then on, it’s just sillier and sillier – a submarine car, a supertanker that eats submarines, Jaws suddenly falling hundreds of feet off a cliff and just shaking it off, Kurt Jurgens attempting to start a nuclear war so that he can play Adam-and-Even in his new underwater civilization. It’s just dopey, and I’ll be the first to admit, but it does a surprisingly good job of selling itself. The Liparus sub-eater is so cool that I’m willing to overlook the 120 or so things that are wrong with it.

They take it a little too far on occasion – such as shooting a boat out the side of the Liparus like a rocket for no good reason, rather than just putting it in the water – which breaks the suspension of disbelief. Still: This is the dumb half of the movie that everyone remembers. What I think they don’t remember is that it’s really entertainingly dumb.

There’s a lot to like here. The direction is great, the action scenes cut together really well, and the Arch Villain’s plot is the first time in the franchise that anyone wanted to destroy the world just to play God. (Interestingly, the first irredeemably genocidally insane villain in Bondom is an environmentalist).  This is one of the very few films – two? Three? – that in any way deals with Bond’s pre-spy life, his dead wife gets a name check, and Bond’s reaction shows that he’s still messed up over it.

As that’s a neat scene, I’ll recount it: Bond and our Soviet agent meet at a bar (In Egypt! It was a very different, less fundamentalist world in 1977, and would remain so for about a year) and he immediately starts flirting with her. She rattles off a bunch of facts about him, “…has had many lady friends, but only married once -”
Bond [abruptly]: “That’s enough.”
Anya: “So you are sensitive, Mister Bond.”
Bond [Dryly]: “About some things. Thank you for the drink.” [Abruptly walks away without having touched it]

Of course there’s negatives. The soundtrack is a bit too disco-influenced. Bond’s “Hello, let’s bone” shenanigans come across almost like parodies of porn films, they’re so cringingly awful. As opposed to the charming guy with an undercurrent of menace, which is the way the character had always been played (And Moore is charming in this, by the way), he’s suddenly some kind of sexual superhero who’s mere presence causes women to swoon within seconds. Or, in one inexplicable scene, to sacrifice herself to save his life after just one kiss. To be clear: Bond has always gotten laid a lot, and I don’t have a problem with that, but it’s just done really badly here. Barbara Bach’s character is hopping in the sack with Bond just days after her long-term boyfriend was killed. “Ok,” you think, “It’s the 1970s. She’s a swinger or something, it means nothing.” Nope, they play it like she’s falling in love with 007. Kurt Jurgens is strangely underdeveloped as a supervillain. Why do they capture the third sub? They already have the two they need.

The movie goes way too Matt Helm in the last five or ten minutes. I’m being literal. One of the final fights resolves itself exactly like the one at the end of “Murderer’s Row,” in which an electromagnet is used to take out a henchman. The Escape Pod is rocket powered for some reason, and is a big round bed stocked with champagne and books and a premium sound system. The obligatory “The boss stumbles in on Bond in dilecto flagrante” scene honestly is smarmy in the same way the same scenes were smarmy for Dean Martin.

Cringe.

But this movie really is no end of fun, despite its legions of flaws.

A couple final notes:

Though it’s never openly stated, the bad guys would have gotten away with it. The only reason they don’t is because one of the bad guy’s people getting greedy and offering to sell secret MacGuffin technology to the superpowers. Had Stromberg’s staff been loyal, the good guys would never have known what was up, the plot would have gone off without a hitch, and everyone on earth would have died.  I like that.

This movie marked the first time anyone had ever seen a jet ski. They were in the prototype stage, and introduced to the public here (At this point called a ‘Wetbike’ because British people are bad at naming things)

This movie also marks the introduction of the Lotus Esprit. Bond’s car in the movie is one of only two working prototypes in the world at the time. Sadly, it didn’t really turn into a submarine.

Weirdly, the very next movie in the series has almost the exact same plot: Supervillain wants to wipe out the world so he can play God and start over with his hand-chosen Adams and Eves. Bond is teamed up with a spy (CIA this time), and the basic structure and progression of the story is almost identical. It involves Jaws. “Moonraker,” just outright sucks, though, and is nothing but live-action cartoon from start to finish.

Ok, I’m done. This is not the greatest movie ever made, but it is almost undoubtedly better than you remember, and well worth a watch on a Saturday night, if you’ve got nothing better to do.

MOVIE REVIEW: “Colossus: The Forbin Project” (1968)

It is the future! The year 1972…or 1975…or 1979, it’s a little unclear, but definitely some time in the ‘70s, as seen from 1968.

On the whole, it seems much nicer than the ‘70s we actually got: there’s no sign of Jimmy Carter, no wide ties, no loud leisure suits, no disco, no bell bottoms. Instead, this version of the ‘70s looks pretty much identical to the ‘60s: Skinny suits, reserved demeanor, a lot of optimism about technology, and a lot of cold war tension (Détente not being something envisioned in the ’60s). A Bobby Kennedy impersonator is president. (This film was made in the narrow window between when Bobby announced he’d be running and the time he was assassinated.)

In a supremely misguided decision, the entire nuclear defense and offence of our country is turned over to a computer buried deep in the Rockies. This computer is called “WOP-R”…oh, no, wait, different flick: This computer is called “Skynet,” no, wait…uhm…“Colossus.” Yes, it was called “Colossus.” It was designed and built by Dr. Charles Forbin, and the complex is Krell-sized and quite literally impenetrable. We see Forbin locking it up in the opening credits.

At a press conference at the White House, the president Kennedy the Second and Forbin introduce the system to the public, and explain generally how it works: It monitors the whole world to eliminate human error from the whole pesky “Nuclear War” thing, thus rendering us – and by extension, earth – safe forever. Curiously, the president refers to “Citizens of the World” in his speech, but not “My fellow Americans.” Typical, really. Hippies.

Anyway, while at the press conference, Colossus goes goofy and says “There is another system” over and over. The staff boot the reporters out, discuss the situation with the CIA and Forbin, and conclude that the Soviets have built their own Colossus (Called “Guardian”) working from stolen US information. “You’ve got a spy on your staff,” the CIA chief tells Forbin. This is an interesting plot element that is never revisited, and left dangling at the end, mostly because the political situation changes so fast that such things become irrelevant.

Colossus requests a connection to Guardian, and on the urging of Forbin and the Soviet director of the Guardian project – Kuprin – the governments reluctantly agree. The machines connect over phone lines or something, and quickly set about developing a mathematical language to communicate in. Everyone is excited about this – a whole lot of new stuff gets developed during the day or so they’re developing the language, including some babble about “Finite Absolutes” – but they start to wig when they realize the machines are now speaking in a language no one else can understand. It’s the machine equivalent of one of those unsettling languages identical twins sometimes speak in.

The US and USSR attempt to break the connection. The machines warn that action will be taken if they’re not re-connected immediately. The president and the Soviet leader refuse. Both machines launch nuclear missiles aimed at the other country. Neither country can do anything to shut ‘em down. After a stressful couple minutes, they agree to reconnect the computers. Colossus shoots down the Soviet missile, but the American one is too close for Guardian to do anything about by that point, and it destroys a town in northern Russia.

Colossus explains that if the connection is broken again, he’ll start nuking lots of towns. Guardian does likewise. Both governments lie to cover up the incident. Forbin and Kuprin head to Rome to discuss a way to shut their Frankensteins down, but the machines figure out what’s going on, and dispatch the KGB to kill Kuprin “Or else we will vaporize Moscow.” This they then do. (the KGB, I mean. Moscow is fine.)

Back in the ‘States, Colossus dictates terms to Forbin: 24/7 surveillance. In the few hours before this goes into effect, he sets up a covert method for the government to sneak information to him through a mistress. (“If you doubt that a man needs a woman, check your history banks, and art units”) Of course he doesn’t actually have a mistress, so he just picks the prettiest computer tech, “Cherry Forever” from “Porky’s.” Colossus agrees to give them privacy while they do it. In fact, they don’t really do it – not at first, anyway – they just lie around naked and exchange information (“Oh, is *That* what you call it!” boom-chicka-wah-boom-chicka-wah-wah), but they eventually get around to the sweet monkey love. It’s all entertainingly awkwardly chaste and proprieticious early on, though.

Colossus/Guardian has a voice synthesizer at this point (An uncredited Paul Frees, who’s really good. Easily the best Cylon ever. Way better than Gary Owens.) and the CIA and KGB are gradually sabotaging their respective ICBMs under the machine’s noses. Meanwhile, the Colossus staff attempt to pull a Star Trek, overpowering the computer by having it run some kind of perpetual counting program, or whatever. The computer merely says “You are fools,” and has those responsible shot. Nuclear missiles in the US and USSR are to be re-targeted at neutral countries so Colossus/Guardian can control the whole world.

Colossus demands to address the world, so they let it. It explains who it is, and how it’s in charge of the world, and how this is for everyone’s best. “Problems unsolvable for you are simple for me,” and “I was built initially to prevent war. This has been done. War is gone forever.”

Best line in the movie:

This is the era of peace. It can be the peace of untold prosperity, or the peace of unburied dead.”

As illustration, it reveals that it knew about the sabotage all along, and nukes the locations that the CIA and KGB are currently working on, killing thousands. Forbin – very reserved through the whole movie – utterly freaks the hell out.

Colossus tells Forbin that eventually he’ll come to love and be in awe of the machines, and that all humanity will as well.

Never,” Forbin says.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

Man oh man oh man oh man, what a great movie! Seriously, I had some major misgivings about watching this one. I remembered it as being pretty disappointing, and I’m not convinced I’d seen it since 1979 or so, but MAN it’s great! Faaaaaaaaaar better than I remembered.

First of all, the direction is awesome! There’s lots of well-composed shots, there’s lots of camera motion, and all kinds of neat elements like overlapping dialog where people are talking at the same time, or dealing with background chatter, or what have you. The blocking of the group scenes – involving videophones, even! – is done so well that it appears effortless. If you’ve ever done any stage or TV work, you’ll know how hard that is to pull off with large interacting groups. Really, this whole movie seems effortless, and I’m pretty impressed by that. Director Joseph Sargent brought a lot of those same elements to “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” four years later (The good one, not the crappy remake), and to a lesser degree in the “Space” miniseries in 1985, and several of the better “ Invaders“ episodes in the ‘60s. He’s good.

How good? You’re effectively dealing with a movie here that takes place almost exclusively inside of three large rooms, with a lot of talking. It would have been amazingly easy to blow it, and end up in “Creation of the Humanoids” territory, but they don’t. Instead, they make a very conscious effort to play it in the same vein as a cold war thriller, like, say, Failsafe, rather than in the dopier vein of a period SF film. He makes this work so well that when the movie ventures outside its principle locations, you kind of want it to get back in there. This is the kind of film it would be ninety-nine times easier to do badly than to do well, and yet Sargent pulls it off very well indeed.

It’s a classic.

The cast is really solid, too: Hans Jorg Gudegast plays Forbin. He’s better known by his stage name of “Eric Braeden,” and even better known still as “Victor” from The Young and the Restless. He also played Irwin Rommel surrogate Hans Dietrich on “Rat Patrol.” He plays Forbin as an interesting mix of youthful idealism and reserved Werner von Braunism (If that’s a word. And if it isn’t it should be). He’s composed, very confident, very smart, very quick to grab any advantage that comes his way, and yet he doesn’t have much of an emotional life. When Colossus turns out to be more than he’d anticipated, he’s overjoyed. When it quickly gets out of hand, he’s annoyed, but treats it as an intellectual puzzle that he’s certain he’ll overcome eventually. It’s a game – telegraphed by him playing chess with Colossus at one point. As the movie goes on, he gets a bit more ragged, has a hard time keeping his calm face on. When Kuprin is killed, he’s startled. When his own people are executed in front of him, he’s heartbroken. When Guardian nukes the US he snaps. When he declares his defiance from the machines at the end, you know – you just know – that it’s empty bravado. They’re right: Forbin is too fascinated with them to remain angry for long, and these kinds of emotional traumas are just wearing him down and making him an easier target. The machines have won not only the whole world, but the soul of their creator, or soon they will anyway.

Susan Clark doesn’t make too much of an impression. She’s pretty enough, but they deliberately play that down. She does come across as pretty smart, and her awkwardness with the ‘mistress’ situation is played very well, particularly when the idea is first breached and she’s a bit drop jawed by it. Apart from that, she plays her scenes in what I like to call “The Barbara Bain Mode,“ a lot of calm, quiet, measured talking while walking around reservedly. She’s not the kind of person to freak out, she’s not the kind of person who needs a rescue, even if she isn’t a forceful personality. There’s just enough of a romance angle here to flesh out her character a little, but not nearly enough to be annoying or tedious. There’s a neat little horrified flash from Susan Clark looking at Forbin at the end where she realizes that Forbin’s soul will soon be forfeit.

There’s some nudity in the movie, all filmed cleverly. For instance, Clark strips down in one scene, and is obscured artfully by a champagne glass which distorts her image just enough – and artistically enough – that it doesn’t feel gratuitous.

Gordon Pinsent really is a dead ringer for the Bobby Kennedy.

William Schallert plays the CIA chief. He’s typically pretty good, and his oddly grim sense of humor is a nice touch to the film. James Hong is in the movie, but does nothing apart from smoke cigarettes and look nervous. Marion “Happy Days” Ross has a bit part as one of the computer techs.

There’s a lot of interesting statements about politics in this flick. The idea that machines should control our weapons is clearly driven by fear and justified by an optimism about “The Human Millennium” which will unlock all our potential, “We can do all this, but first we must have peace.” When Colossus/Guardian (Now identifying itself as “World Control”) addresses the world at the end of the film, the speech is oddly similar to the one the president gave, announcing “The Human Millennium” has begun. It’s interesting because the government got *EXACLY* what they wanted, and they’re horrified by it!

Be careful what you wish for: Not only is there no more threat of war, there’s no more need for government at all. This is presented, interestingly for the time, as a bad thing. Human life is protected, arguably more secure under “World Control” than at any point in our history, and yet it’s also oddly irrelevant. Humanity kind of no longer matters on one level because we’re no longer in the driver’s seat.

Whether it was intentional or not, what we’re looking at here is basically a dismantling of the early sixties Kennedy idealism and futurism as the ideas come home to roost. It’s no surprise that the president is *clearly* supposed to be Bobby, since this film essentially is the conclusion of a process that started with JFK: the attempt to perfect the world. But is there any room for people in a perfect world? The film argues that there is, but only if we’re housebroken. But if we’re housebroken, are we still human? By the end of the film, “World Control” has effectively become a god, and a very wrathful one, a Zeus throwing lightning bolts at those who sow disharmony. We spent a lot of time working our way out from under that kind of setup, it seems a shame to go right back into it, only for real this time.

The Machine is the supreme arbiter of right and wrong, invasive in every aspect of people’s lives, and such areas as are left to man as his own purview – sex, alcohol, the occasional entertainment – are essentially trivial, more about being given the illusion of choice rather than an actual choice. Bread and Circuses to distract people from their slavery. Forever.

And as is very clear (To me at least), humanity *WILL* come to love the master.